I’m starting a new feature here where I’m answering questions from members of my church about various issues. Since many of these questions are of general interest, I figured I would share the answers here.
Today’s question is about a Christian perspective on labour unions. How should we regard them? Can a Christian be a member of a labour union?
I’ve tackled this question before from within the Canadian context (see here). Having done some research, I’ve noticed that Australia has some significant differences. My answer in this post is based on the Australian context.
Historically, many Reformed people have objected to union membership on several grounds. One of the main grounds was the unconditional oath of allegiance that labour unions required. It used to be that if you were a member of a union you were required to promise that you would put the union above everything else, including God and your biblical convictions. Moreover, many workplaces were “closed shops,” which meant that if you worked there you were compelled to join the union and pay the associated dues. This is no longer the case in Australia. Union membership is voluntary, and no one can be compelled to anything. For example, if you don’t join a particular union associated with a workplace, neither the union nor the employer can make your life difficult (at least not legally). If the union starts an industrial action or strike, even if you are a union member, you cannot be forced to participate. More details can be found here. So the situation has changed on that front.
Nevertheless, the existence of labour unions is owing to an adversarial model of industrial relations. It’s an unbiblical notion of necessary conflict between labour and management. Depending on their leadership and policies, some labour unions might be more militant than others. In other scenarios, workers in a given situation might be facing an exploitative employer and a labour union could justly and fairly promote their interests. When faced with the question, a Christian needs to look at the history of a particular union’s dealings with management and any relevant legislation as well. It’s also worth asking whether that union would stand behind you as a Christian if you got into trouble in the workplace because of your beliefs. The answer to that question would give you a clear indication of whether you have a place in such an organization.
Finally, a Christian also has to research the particular causes that union supports. Here in Australia, I can think of at least one union that is openly affiliated with the Labor Party and supports its policies (including on abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, etc.). Since their historic foundational principles are based on socialist/Marxist ideology, unions do tend to lean to the left politically speaking. Christians should therefore be aware of whether or not their union dues are going to be supporting causes that are ethically problematic.
So can a Christian be a member of a labour union? It depends on the union. In some instances, a Christian will conclude that it’s possible, in others that it’s impossible. You need to do your research and find out who you’re dealing with. At the end of the day we can be thankful that we live in a country where we’re never compelled to make a choice contrary to our conscience.